Changing Face of Govt

Written by Sudipta Datta | Updated: Dec 31 2011, 06:56am hrs
Lost in the din over the Lokpal Bill, the government has quietly introduced another piece of legislation in Parliament that will conceivably tackle corruption far better. On the last Monday of December, the Electronic Delivery of Services Bill was tabled in the Lok Sabha, which proposes to impose a fine of R20,000 on any government officer who fails to provide a service in the electronic mode.

Simply put, if the government says a property tax payment has to be allowed through the internet and the local clerk insists on a personal visit, he runs the risk of having to pay a hefty fine. If it really sounds so difficult, just check this out. Once the EDS Bill is passed, within six months, each government department will have to put up a list of services that are going to be available electronically. Once that is done, you can complain about any errant government official to the Electronic Services Delivery Commission.

No doubt, it has taken quite some time to reach this stage. For decades, Indias IT and ITeS prowess notwithstanding, the availability of government services in the e-mode was limited to a few pilot projects in some states. Among the few mass-scale projects that indeed provided online services were the land record computerisation in Karnataka and the Bhoomi project and eSeva in Andhra Pradesh, the latter bringing a whopping 135 projects under its ambit. Correction in ration cards and PAN cards are also done online.

That picture may have just changed significantly in 2011. While the EDS Bill is the most important part of that change, state governments had already begun to move. Earlier this year, the Delhi government brought 35 services under the time-bound delivery mechanism. A week into the project, chief minister Sheila Dikshit office reported a grievance list of 600,000, and growing. Emboldened, she expanded the list of services to more areas.

R Chandrashekar, secretary, Union department of information technology (DIT), says that, in what is a mirror image of the EDS Bill, a plan is afoot to make all public procurement, across all departments, happen only through the electronic mode. This, he says, will enhance transparency and promote healthy competition.

Unlike other, more literate countries, India has opted for the assisted mode of IT interface with the government. It makes sense as low internet penetration and lack of exposure to the systems make an operator an useful ally in the villages.

Still, for years, the lack of demand from villages had stilted delivery of services and impacted quality. The only major national-level programme was the railway computerisation that revolutionised rail travel across India.

However, how 2011 was different from earlier years was that, finally, a great number of people moved away from assisted service delivery, and accountability in the government spread beyond just the personal initiative of a dynamic collector. Bills like EDS will now force government departments to computerise all records and serve through the tube.

Yet if EDS was the high point, the setback to Aadhar (the UIDAIs scheme) was disquieting.

The same DIT insists that the National Population Register will do a better job, but considering that it lacks the passion of the UIDAI scheme and its soft identification approach, the plan to reach all Indians by 2012 December looks a very tall order indeed.

At stake is financial inclusion. The more the process of identifying all Indians is delayed, the tougher it will be for the government to reach out with its plans of work, food and health for all.

Narayan Devanathan, national planning head, Dentsu Marcom, said that in any democracy, public opinion and political opposition function as necessary checks and balances against those in power. Decisions, whether harsh or otherwise, with far-reaching impact, therefore, also necessarily take time to be made and implemented. The exigencies of election-year politics means that what's good for the economy or the public is not always whats good public or government policy.

The National eGovernance Project (NeGP) covers 27 mega projects and has Mission Mode Projects and other state- and district-level projects under its ambit. Aadhar, EDS and computerised public procurement all come under its purview.

Right now, however, there is a huge gap between the vision and reality. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while reviewing the implementation of the Passport Seva Kendra Project, had a three-point advice for the National Institute of Smart Governance: no citizen should be made to stand in long queues for application of passport; no citizen should spend more than 45 minutes at the passport office; and passports should be delivered at the doorstep within 48 hours of the application. A visit to the Kolkata passport office will tell you far we are from this idea. On a positive note, Hyderabad is a study in efficiency.

Tanmoy Chakrabarty, vice-president and global head, government industry solution unit, Tata Consulting Services, said the top political leadership needs to give a fillip to the process of e-governance in the country. CMs of various states should devote at least six months of a calender year towards implementation of multi-department e-governance projects. They should spend at least an hour a day till all constituents fall in line. For that, we need a high degree of political will towards fast-tracking e-governance projects in the country, he said.

Elaborating on what ails e-governance projects in the country, he said pilot programmes should not always remain pilot and a piece-meal approach could only give piece-meal outcomes. The championing of e-governance is more of an individual initiative rather than an institutionalised effort, indicating that the pace of e-governance rollout in the current times is largely an IT-savvy collector's call than the collective verve of the overall machinery, he noted.

Anil Jain, senior director, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, is impressed with the CSC (common service centre) project under the NeGP that delivers various government services to citizens and businesses in states, such as Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan, and Union territories like Chandigarh.

Tamil Nadu will introduce biometeric-based ration cards to weed out bogus cards, said a senior official of IT department of the government. The validity of the current ration cards has, therefore, been extended till December 31, 2012. After capturing iris and fingerprint records of people under the NPR, the state government will start issuing the new smart cards based on the NPR database.

In Gujarat, it is possible for a company to now select land most suitable for its purpose for setting up an unit, get various clearances and commence operations in a matter of days. It has cut down the 50-odd visits a mid-sized company still has to pay to government offices in many states.